Why are America's elections SO darn dramatic? Part 2
An examination of the privatization of our election process and the disaster that is gerrymandering.
written by Eric Prince
Well, well, well...look what we have here. You've returned to hear more about the flaws that plague America's electoral system.
We're now less than 100 days before the general election in November, so it's really the perfect time to discuss these flaws...that is, if the election isn't delayed of course...
(Frightening stuff. It really is.)
Anyhow, I digress...
So far in this series on America's elections, we've discussed the long-standing issues with the voting system itself and with our primaries. You can read about these issues here. Long story short, both of these systems are highly flawed and they promote drama, division, and extremism in their own unique ways.
Today we'll be looking at two other causes for the obscene amount of drama and corruption we experience in America's elections:
1) The privatization of our political system.
2) The issue of a little thing called Gerrymandering (or is it Jerry Mander?)
Let's jump in.
The Privatization of EVERYTHING
The first reason our election process feels SO DARN dramatic is because EVERYTHING to do with the election is privatized.
Seriously, it’s worse than you think. Let’s check it out.
First, campaign advertising was privatized back in the 1930s and has shaped the way our entire election process operates. I’ve already written about this at length in my piece about the American News Industry, but I do love talking about it.
The first campaign advertising firm, called Campaigns, Inc. did some VERY questionable things.
First, they single-handedly swayed the entire nation to reject universal healthcare by associating it with communism. (Again, I talk about it here).
But I have a better example for today.
Did any of you have to read The Jungle by Upton Sinclair in high school? The novel was about the HORRIBLE working conditions in factories.
Well, that very same Upton Sinclair ran for Governor of California in 1934 as a Democrat, but was very well known to be socialist in his views (he was even part of the Socialist Party at one point).
Sinclair's opponent in 1934, Frank Merriam, decided to hire Campaigns, Inc., a private political consulting firm, to wage a campaign war against Upton Sinclair. One of the most egregious tactics Campaigns, Inc. used was to take lines spoken by various characters in Sinclair’s books and release them as ads in various newspapers. They looked a little like this:
Yes, you read that right. Sinclair's opponent used lines from fictional characters to defeat Sinclair.
That’s like if George R.R. Martin ran for a political position and his opponent used lines spoken by characters from Game of Thrones.
Officially, these quotes AREN'T fake. Upton Sinclair DID say them…but it is a MASSIVE misrepresentation of the truth.
And it also set the stage for the continued privatization of our political system. Which leads us to our next example.
The Presidential Debates: Just Darn Good Television
The second example of our privatized electoral process is with our electoral debates.
During each election cycle, there are typically two types of debates: primary debates and general election debates.
Primary debates are debates between candidates of the same party while general election debates are between the two nominees for the Democratic Party and the Republican Party.
And here's the thing...the primary debates are hosted and sponsored by private entities. I’m not kidding.
This explains why the debates for primaries only air on one channel at a time.
For example, the first Democratic Primary Debate for the upcoming election aired on NBC and was hosted by NBC. The second debate aired on CNN and was hosted by CNN.
And because the primary debates are hosted and sponsored by private entities, the debates are designed to eschew typical debate etiquette and instead grab the most viewers. Why? Because more viewers equals more ad revenue.
And, as I’ve already discussed in my piece about the American News Industry, these news corporations are focused on only one thing: MONEY.
Because of that, these news corporations are going to do what makes them the most money. They’re going to make these primary debates into a SHOWDOWN.
Fortunately, the general election debates are a little different. They're overseen by a nonpartisan nonprofit group named the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD).
Unfortunately, many politicians, campaign managers, and networks still try to weasel around the CPD and exert their influence on the debates.
Politicians, campaign managers, and networks have all realized that debates don't need to contain actual facts. The only important thing is to draw the most viewers. Then, if you throw a couple of zippy one-liners at your opponent, you can win the favor of millions of Americans who have tuned in for the showdown.
Roger Ailes knew the secret to debating all the way back in 1988 when he told George H.W. Bush the following line before a debate:
Now, you might be wondering WHY any of this is allowed.
Well, part of the reason it's allowed is because the government repealed the Fairness Doctrine back in the 1980s. What’s the Fairness Doctrine you ask? Well, I’ll tell you!
The Fairness Doctrine is what used to keep the news industry in check. It required the media to present multiple sides of the same political issue. This essentially prevented media corporations from turning into bias production factories.
Unfortunately, the Fairness Doctrine WAS repealed and the media you see today WAS turned into a bias production factory.
A solution to THIS issue doesn’t seem very likely either. Both of our politics parties benefit ENORMOUSLY from the privatization of our election process. They make money. They gain power. Rinse and repeat.
It's also difficult because the federal government outsources to the private industry ALL THE TIME. It's almost impossible to separate the private industry (and capitalism in general) from our political system these days. Hell, it's the entire reason the Military-Industrial Complex even exists.
The only way the privatization issue could be fixed is if, somehow, Congress was able to pass laws restricting the private industry's involvement in our election cycle. But again, this doesn't seem likely. Why? Because...
Sure, the Republican Party may have been the first to pull the trigger on the privatization of our government (they repealed the Fairness Doctrine and were the first to use private political campaigning), but these days BOTH political parties benefit far too much to change the system.
Sigh. Oh well.
Let's move on.
The Wide Open Road of the United States
The third and final reason our election cycle feels like a boxing match is a little more amorphous than the previous two reasons.
Basically, the United States is freaking huge. It’s huge! And the distance between communities is ENORMOUS.
Check out the distance between New York City and Topeka, Kansas:
This enormous distance leads to the formation of isolated communities. And, over time, these isolated communities become QUITE different from one another. Someone in San Francisco is NOT going to lead the same life as a farmer in South Carolina. These two types of people barely interact with each other.
Sure, isolated communities exist in most countries. Even the smallest countries have enough distance between communities to create different lifestyles and different political opinions. But when a country is HUGE (like the United States), the difference in lifestyle and political opinion happens waaaaaaay more often.
And because of the United States’ two-party system, our isolated communities become war-zones for the Democrats and Republicans who want to gain control of the country. So, in the long-run, all of these communities get turned into either red or blue districts.
And given enough time and enough political advertising, these isolated communities start to think along these red and blue lines. It becomes almost like a football game: the reds vs. blues.
And then there’s gerrymandering, the next level of geographical manipulation.
Get Mr. Jerry Mander Out Of Here!
Gerrymandering is the act of reshaping various congressional and state-level districts to capture a big liberal or conservative voter base.
Typically, districts try to capture similar numbers of populations. Check out the current map of Virginia's Congressional Districts:
This is what congressional districts typically look like. Different shapes and sizes, but designed to capture similar population amounts. The one you see above was created in 2015.
Now, let's look at Virginia's Congressional Districts before they were changed in 2015.
Yes, some of the districts ARE shaped differently than how they're shaped now. It's actually an interesting story.
In 2012, Virginia's General Assembly had a Republican majority for both their houses.
They created a redistricting that packed low-income minority voters in the 3rd District so that their votes would count in the surrounding districts. Republicans did this because, historically, low-income minority voters typically vote for Democratic candidates.
Luckily, in 2015, this instance of gerrymandering was found unconstitutional by a Virginia Circuit Court. The districts have since been redrawn in order to redistribute the low-income minority voters of the 3rd district.
But that's only the tip of the ice-burg. Gerrymandering happens all over the country and at many different levels.
Let's check out a few more Gerrymandered districts:
Holy shit, that's bad. These districts are NOT designed to capture similar populations. They're designed to capture VOTING groups.
So, not only do Democrats and Republicans fight over influence of specific areas, but they also MANIPULATE geographic districts to suit their needs.
And if you can redraw districts to fit a population that will DEFINITELY vote for you, you can win more local elections than you'd be able to otherwise.
Check out this graphic that's been floating around on the internet for a few years now. I LOVE this graphic because it explains gerrymandering so succinctly.
Long story short, this:
Gerrymandering also creates further division, because where people used to naturally differ in views, now they are being artificially driven into certain voting lines. And as long as political parties can continue to redraw the lines, they don’t have to worry about compromising on issues. They’ll only have to redraw the lines so that they stand a better chance of winning.
And if you can just redraw the lines, you can capture a group of people that OVERWHELMINGLY supports your party. When this happens, the other party tends to give up on these districts and instead focus on the districts they DO have control of.
This is why you see some presidential candidates almost completely ignore certain states that overwhelmingly support the other party or candidate. It’s just a waste of time and resources!
I know what you’re expecting me to say here: there isn’t really a solution that will work here.
…well sort of.
We can’t change the size of our country. And we can’t change the amount of effort political parties exert in certain geographical areas. And we definitely can’t change the amount of social isolation certain communities experience (not even the internet could do it!).
But, we CAN change one thing. We can limit Gerrymandering.
Historically, the Democratic Party has relied less on Gerrymandering than the Republican party has. This is because liberal voters outnumber conservative voters in the United States (which is why two Republican presidents have lost the popular vote but have still become president in the last 20 years). The Democratic Party and Republican Party have also taken different approaches toward elections, with Republicans generally focusing on a grassroots, ground-up approach...which usually involves Gerrymandering.
Basically, since liberal voters outnumber conservative voters, the Republican Party has resorted to distorting districts in order to win seats in Congress and in the General Assemblies of each state.
The Republican Party isn't exactly subtle about Gerrymandering. Hell, they've even given the process a name: REDMAPPING. It's a legitimate strategy by the Republican Party.
Thankfully, you're beginning to see the Democratic Party combat REDMAPPING.
In 2020 alone both New Hampshire and Virginia have enacted laws combating Gerrymandering. And as of today, around 18 states have some sort of Gerrymandering laws in place.
Unfortunately, it seems to be all the Republican-majority states that are lagging behind on enacting these laws...not that I'm very surprised.
So there you have it. Just a few of the many reasons why our election process is so darn dramatic, divisive, and corrupt.
Yes, these reasons aren't the only reasons at play. There are a TON of other reasons and processes that have contributed to the state of our political process. A TON. And it's a very complicated and correlative system that feeds off of itself.
Unfortunately, I don't have time to write you a book on the topic. But I do want to point you in the direction of a couple useful sources that have helped me write this piece:
The Lie Factory by Jill Lepore
Lepore does a wonderful job here uncovering the history and impact that Campaigns, Inc. has had on the American political process. Click here for the whole story.
How Redistricting Became a Technological Arms Race by Vann R. Newkirk II
Here, Newkirk lays out the history of our country's corrupt gerrymandering practices. He does a fantastic job of helping readers understand just how the REDMAP project developed over time and became one of the defining characteristics of the Republican Party. Click here for the whole story.
Additionally, if you'd like to discuss any other reasons for all this drama in our election process or political process, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or DM me on any social media outlet (@got2now).
See you next week!
- Eric Prince
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